Halloween Horror Nights 2008
For the past several years, I have had attending Universal Studios Orlando’s annual Halloween Horror Nights high on my “To Do” list. I had only visited this theme park one time shortly after it opened and many new rides had been added since then. I almost went last year but got sick at the last minute and had to back out. This year I finally made it and can cross that task off my list. Please keep in mind that the review you are about to read is entirely from the perspective of a first time attendee. I intentionally waited to publish this review until after HHN was over for this year so there would be no issue with spoilers. I have heard from various sources who attend this event regularly that 2008 was a below average year but with no prior first hand knowledge of my own, it was all new to me.
I was in excellent company for my inaugural experience with HHN. Attending with me were good friends Byron Rocher and John Thrailkill who had both veterans of this event. At Byron’s suggestion (based on the selection of attractions offered this year), we opted not to purchase the Fast Passes, which allow you to circumvent lines but also double the $69.99 admission price. We were attending on October 18, one of two Saturdays that Universal considers the prime time of the event, so we could not find any type of discount on the tickets. In light of this decision, we knew we had to arrive early and move quickly to get in as much fun as possible before the lines got too long.
Byron and John’s prior knowledge of the event was helpful but we also had an ace up our sleeve. Our friend and HHN expert Brandon“The Trivia Man” Tomasello had already attended several weeks earlier. He provided us with a map to study and a printed list of his recommendations. With eight haunted houses and six Scare Zones to navigate, this information proved very helpful. We also had our own priorities to guide us and our game plan was agreed upon before we ever pulled into the parking lot.
The official start time of the evening event was 6:30PM but Brandon had warned us to plan on being able to get in at least thirty minutes early. We drove onto the property promptly at 6PM and shelled out the extra funds for “priority parking” closer to the attractions. For those unfamiliar with the layout of the Universal area, parking is at the rear of the two parks (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure). To get to the entrance of either park, you must first pass through the outdoor mall that Universal likes to call City Walk.
As soon as the locks snapped down on the car doors, Byron, John and I did our bat out of hell impressions through the garage. We dodged kiosks of tacky crap and early bird drunks in City Walk before we finally slowed down at the entrance to Universal Studios. Just in case you might have felt the need to bring a weapon to protect yourself against monsters or a flask of something to keep you warm (rather than paying the park’s outrageous prices for watered down adult beverages), Universal had employed helpful security guards and set up metal detectors to screen you before you could get in. I unloaded all the metal I conveniently could from my person (including the extra batteries for my camera at the security person’s recommendation), set off the metal detector anyway as I passed through, and was then given back everything without a further glance!
After reassembling our persons, we resumed our mad dash into the park and headed straight for The Simpsons ride. As we rapidly passed by some of the Scare Zones and displays, I tried to snap a few pictures in the fading daylight but they all came out blurry! The Simpsons ride, built on the framework of what was originally Back to the Future, is relatively new and was the one ride none of us had been on before. The basic premise is that you, along with the Simpsons family, have been chosen to test a new ride at Krusty the Clown’s cheap amusement park. Sideshow Bob has escaped from prison and seizes this opportunity to do away with Bart and his clan once and for all, while you get stuck in the middle. Overall this is a cute ride and the amusement park spoof theme is very entertaining. The Simpsons is hindered by the limitations of the hardware though and would have been much more enjoyable if it had been engineered like the Spiderman ride at Islands of Adventure.
After our whirlwind tour of Spring field, we decided to hop in line for the haunted house that was right next door. This one was called Dead Exposure and our resident expert, Brandon, had rated it four stars on his list. Based on the creative photos of victims on the outside of the building, I was expecting some kind of mad photographer theme for my first ever haunted house at Universal. What we got instead though was several long patches of completely dark rooms where nothing happened, followed by people in some pretty neat looking glowing monster costumes jumping out at you. Not being a fan of the “jump out and yell boo” style haunted houses, this one was pretty dull for me and you never got to see the monsters long enough to really appreciate the melted looking makeup they were wearing.
Next up, we hit the Men in Black ride which leads you through an impressive recreation of the organization’s headquarters from the movie. As “agents in training” for MIB, it’s time to go through their combat simulator to practice shooting aliens in an urban setting. As often seems to happen in these rides, hostile aliens attack the complex and the simulator shootout ends up being the real thing. This is a fun ride for the whole family and once you figure out how to use the guns in the ride car you can wrack up points blasting invaders from other worlds.
During our planning session for this trip, I was adamant about one thing – I wanted to finally try out the Jaws ride. On my previous trip to Universal Studios Orlando, this ride had been completed but was not yet open to the public. Being a huge fan of the film that inspired it, I had been waiting for years for a chance to check out this attraction. Jaws turned out to be exactly the kind of ride I enjoy the most, one with a live operator, in this case a guide for Amity Boat Tours, and a fun running story. As part of an aquatic tour of some beautiful Long Island architecture, we are told of the town’s history of shark problems that have long since passed. Unfortunately (here we go again), there just happens to be one more gargantuan squalus ready to terrorize the waters and Chief Brody can’t quite reach us in time. Jaws is one of those rides where the right operator can make or break it. We were lucky enough to have a very entertaining one on our trip and the three of us got very “interactive”. As we exited our seats in the last row of the boat after the ride, our guide announced over the PA “and special thanks to row eight for making this such a memorable voyage”!
We had been keeping an eye on the time so that we could catch the 8:15 show of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure. This very topical show is based on the two late 80’s / early 90’s comedy films about an inane pair of unlikely time travelers. This year’s show featured a politically themed opening act and then launched into poking fun at almost every major film (and a few pop stars) from the last year. It was a very amusing presentation that took some well deserved shots at Indiana Jones, Sex in the City, Sweeny Todd, Iron Man, Hellboy, and even Miley Cyrus! While the Joker was present for some great gags, the Dark Knight was conspicuously absent. I was told this year’s show was not as good as some of the previous ones but I still found it very enjoyable.
Returning to where we had left off in our travels, just past Jaws is the aptly named Disaster ride that Byron wanted to go on since there was no wait to get in. This was originally the Earthquake ride which was never that impressive to begin with but Universal found a way to make it suck even worse. Instead of the waiting area showing a behind the scenes film hosted by Charlton Heston, you now get a generic setting for a movie studio that specializes in, you guessed it, disaster films. The ride itself is almost exactly the same as Earthquake except they no longer dump water in to put out the explosions and monitors in the subway cars try to convince you that you are an extra in the film being made. Whenever Universal gets ready to add their next attraction to the park, I would like to remind them that this property is available!
By the time we finished with Disaster, the wait at most of the other rides and haunted houses was starting to get prohibitive. We checked out a few of the restaurants in search of snacks, including the impressively decorated Creature Café. This was the only spot in the whole park that had anything to do with the classic Universal monsters. Even on a regular day I think that’s a shame but during Halloween Horror Nights it’s practically criminal! We opted for some high calorie milkshakes at Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlor so we could continue our adventures ramped up on sugar.
As it turned out, our final attraction for the evening was the haunted house called Creatures. Apparently this house was based on a comic book but I have never heard of it. The theme looked to me like backwoods inbred mutants with even more genetically fouled up animals. The atmosphere in this house was well done and you could appreciate the set pieces better than in Dead Exposure but it didn’t offer much in the way of scares. Perhaps this kind of atmosphere is unsettling to visitors from New York but for anyone raised in the south it’s not that far a stretch from reality.
Once we finished with Creatures, we took stock of the remaining rides and houses and realized there was no way to avoid at least a 45-60 minute wait for anything else we wanted to do. Since we had almost circled the park by this point, we decided to go back and spend some time checking out the Scare Zones that were located at various points on the street. It was a good thing we did because many of them were not in full swing or even set up at all when we made our mad dash through at opening time and it would have been a shame to miss some of these cleverly themed areas.
This year, Universal supposedly had more Scare Zones than ever before (six full Zones plus a few additional smaller set ups). These ranged from fairly mundane (Streets of Blood, American Gothic) to bizarrely creative. My hands down favorite was Path of the Wicked, a demented take on the Wizard of Oz where all the characters were evil. The cyborg Tin Man was an extremely well designed character and the Wicked Witch presided over the whole area from atop her castle, making some pretty sharp cracks at anyone passing by. Byron was disappointed with the flying monkeys who jumped from building to building because they were too high up and easily missed by the crowd. He also thought they would have been more entertaining if they were armed with water balloons to drop on unsuspecting visitors!
Asylum in Wonderland was similar to the Oz area; giving Lewis Carroll’s characters the nightmare treatment (and featuring a hookah smoking caterpillar that could easily trade insults with the Wicked Witch). The Skoolhouse was a foggy area with evil kids in vintage Halloween costumes that managed to be very atmospheric without being annoying. Just to make sure that no childhood favorite character went unscathed this year, the Fractured Tales Zone gave visitors a very dark version of Mother Goose’s creations. This Zone was right next to a path that was lit by more jack-o-lanterns than I have ever seen in one place in my life. All that was missing was the headless horseman to carry one off as a temporary replacement.
After we took in our fill of Scare Zones, we decided it was time to call it a night and head out of the park. We made one final stop at the It’s a Wrap store (a well kept secret clearance store right as you exit the park) and I did find a few shirts bearing the likeness of Frankenstein, Dracula, and their friends. While it was nice to find these at a discount, it still does not excuse the fact that Universal was not paying adequate tribute to the monster characters that helped make the studio famous.
For my first year at Halloween Horror Nights, I found the event very enjoyable and would certainly consider attending again. I filled out an online survey after my visit and stated my complaint about the lack of classic monsters. I also voiced my opinions about the haunted houses and suggested they be made longer in the future and give visitors an opportunity to take in the atmosphere and appreciate the work that has gone into creating them. Over all though, Universal’s annual event is a horror fans dream and a great evening of fun for just about everyone.